The Labour Party conference was brimming with energy, but as storm clouds gather and National enjoys a poll surge, the relentless positivity is under strain, writes Toby Manhire.
Two prime ministers from history stalked the halls of the Due Drop Events Centre in South Auckland through the weekend. Norman Kirk was there. You couldn’t miss him. In name, image and words, Kirk was spirited up across the Labour Party conference to mark the 50th anniversary of their venerated leader becoming prime minister.
Kirk’s contribution, despite a prime ministership cut short by sudden death less than two years into office, was acclaimed in almost every speech. A photographic exhibition hung in the lobby. Alongside pink retro hoodies at the merch store were tea towels emblazoned with his famous (if slightly misquoted) words: “Somewhere to live, someone to love, somewhere to work and something to hope for”. Sale price: $25, or $75 signed – “by PM”, was the annotation in pen, triply underlined.
Hovering alongside Kirk in the Manukau rafters was another former prime minister. Liz Truss. Her time at the top was much more recent, dramatically shorter – 45 days – and ended not in death but ignominy. Though she might live 12,000 miles away and soon figure more in pub quiz questions than ordinary memory, the Ghost of Truss was made very welcome at the conference. Her part was bogeyman, the villain to hero Kirk. She did not get a tea towel.
Everybody knew how the avatars worked. Jacinda Ardern: the heir to Kirk – principled, determined, kind. Among other things he achieved, Ardern happened to mention in her conference welcome, was introducing a new public holiday. Liz Truss, meanwhile, was the delicious archetype for Christopher Luxon: ideologically fevered, inexperienced, hellbent on cutting tax in defiance of both our modern gods: the moral mood and the financial markets.
While historians might find merit in the first of those comparisons – author of Diary of The Kirk Years Margaret Hayward sees much of her former boss in Ardern – the latter is caricature. Luxon is not Truss, and National’s proposed tax cuts are not the same as the zealous, fiscally unhinged commitments of Truss’s since abandoned mini-budget. Yet still, the promise to ditch the top tax rate, the 39 cents for every dollar above $180,000 earned, is, as one observer at the conference suggested to me, a “complete gimme” for Labour. As long as it remains a first-term commitment, Labour will seize on the pledge as the broiling soul of their rivals.
The recent, catastrophic experiment in the UK Conservative government was referenced throughout the conference, but by no one more than Grant Robertson, who, as expected, was relentlessly positing Liz Truss as Luxon’s ideological twin. “Even the UK Conservatives worked out that tax cuts for the wealthiest were a mistake. But here, National are sticking to it. Christopher Luxon is trying to out-Truss Liz Truss. Economic credibility be damned, there is an ideology to serve,” he railed in a Saturday morning speech, raising roars of delight at the idea of National being led by “Liz Luxon”. It was a “dangerous proposition for New Zealanders to have him in government”, Robertson said.
Luxon last night shrugged off the invective as “petty politics” designed to “deflect and distract”. While it was ”incredibly flattering that they’re fixating on me”, they should be “fixating on the New Zealand people”.
Luxon was dismissive, too, of the policy announcement contained in Ardern’s concluding conference address, calling the recalibration of thresholds for access to childcare subsidies, providing support for as many as 10,000 more children, “band-aid economics”. He was confident enough not to attempt to excoriate a cautious, well-designed pledge, which, alongside a tweak in the family tax credit, can be presented as non-inflationary. Ardern said it stood in contrast to National’s tax cut promise, pointedly noting that it defrosted a freeze in the childcare subsidy income bracket implemented by National during the global financial crisis. If they were really concerned about adjustments for inflation, countered Luxon, how about those tax brackets?
Covid in the corner
Luxon has had missteps along the way – most recently in his perplexing suggestion New Zealand might deal with its emissions issue by gazing out to sea and “using the ocean as a massive carbon sink … if we change the way we count it”. But he is leading a rejuvenated, hungry and increasingly functional party. Put it this way: a little over a little over a year ago, from the same stage that Ardern spoke yesterday, leader Judith Collins delivered a speech to the National Party conference surrounded by the blazing slogan “Demand the Debate”.
It feels like another time. Playing hype-man for Ardern yesterday afternoon, Robertson heralded someone “who has written the playbook for Covid-19”, but the response to the pandemic played a relatively muted role in the conference, shuffling around awkwardly like a foresaken friend. The paradox for Labour strategists is that the issue which delivered an unprecedented MMP majority to Labour is just not something people today want to talk about, let alone dwell on.
The walls of the events centre were plastered with posters proclaiming the successes of five years in government. Covid wasn’t there. A “little book of big progress”, folding out from credit card size to A4, filled with examples of “what we’ve achieved together”, was dealt out to members. Tacking the virus? Nowhere. In an extended slide show cataloguing Labour’s achievements across five years, played to delegates in the main hall ahead of Ardern’s opening address on Friday night, 36 different headlines lit up the big screen. Not one was about the Covid response.
“I don’t know about you, but watching that,” said Ardern, deviating briefly from her speech notes when the five-year highlights reel finished, “it’s easy to feel potentially just a little bit weary – but also really invigorated.”
The delegate cheer-o-meter in response to that list of achievements saw the needle leap highest on banning conversion therapy, free period products in schools, and the ban on assault weapons. The noisiest ovation, however, was for the fair pay agreement bill made law in recent days, hailed the next day by CTU national secretary Melissa Ansell-Bridges as the most important change for workers in a generation. Its ministerial architect, Michael Wood, was applauded at every mention. He floated around the conference beaming, surrounded by fans. As far as they were concerned, he could have walked out of the arena and straight across the surface of the neighbouring whitewater park.
Down to earth
For any political party, the ambition of a conference in the 21st century is to minimise – if necessary suppress – any internal arguments, rally the faithful, preach the message through the hall and into living rooms, and spark some momentum. On that score, Labour will be delighted with the weekend, bullhorning the messages and chalking out the dividing lines ahead of 2023.
They know, too, that their challenges are palpable, immediate and beyond the rhetorical summonings of Kirk and Truss. A few minutes up the road from the venue, Middlemore Hospital’s emergency department is creaking. To get to the conference from central Auckland on Friday afternoon, the drive took an hour. Public transport was worse. At the Chinese grocery store a few doors down, the checkout operator beckoned me through the exit, with the entrance boarded up. “We got ram-raided a couple of weeks ago,” he said.
And members’ weekend high came plummeting down to earth just a few hours after they cheered Ardern off stage. At 6pm to be precise, in the form of a poll which Newshub political editor Jenna Lynch coolly diagnosed as a “disastrous result” for Labour. The Reid Research poll put National on 40.7% and Labour on 32.3%. Not just that: together with Act, National would have 50.7% of the vote, according to the poll, with Labour and Green on just 41.8% combined.
Ardern was at pains through the weekend to stress that politics is not a sport, but she acknowledged, too, that next year would bring an “old fashioned MMP election”. The eleventh-hour relentless positivity of 2017 and the team of five million Covid election of 2020 were in the grand scheme aberrations; 2023 means, in Ardern’s words yesterday, a “head to head”. That about summed up the mood among delegates on the year ahead. “Bloody close,” forecast one, untangling a lanyard to show security. “A fight.”
“No, not at all,” said Ardern yesterday when I asked whether the focus on the National alternative meant relentless positivity was dead. “I’d still like to think that you’ll see exactly the same approach that I’ve always taken to politics and talked about the opposition. It’s always about the straight policy contrast. But we’ve got to remind people that it is ultimately a choice between the Labour government that they know and have experienced in the last five years, versus a plan which we’ve actually seen modelled recently in the UK, and how damaging that has been to our economy. I think it’s our job to draw that contrast, particularly in an election year.”
We’re not, in fact, yet in an election year, but it feels like it. And, no question, Labour is now in campaign mode. When it was put to Robertson by a reporter on Saturday that his speech, with 19 mentions of National, nine of Luxon and a hat-trick of Trusses, suggested an over-emphasis on the opposition, he replied, “Not at all, this is an election,” before remembering where he was. “It’s also a Labour Party conference, but we’re heading into an election year. And there is a choice to be made.”